Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for December, 2015

Chinese towels

Another thought about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos: Her billion-dollar medical-testing company based on secret and unproven technology in her twenties depended largely on a board of well-connected politicians and former politicians, notable for their lack of any relevant scientific expertise. But before she got to that point she needed to turn the heads of some scientists. According to the New Yorker, she caught the attention of dean of engineering Channing Robertson in her freshman year at Stanford:

One day, in her freshman year, Robertson said, she came to his office to ask if she could work in his lab with the Ph.D. students. He hesitated, but she persisted and he gave in. At the end of the spring term, she told him that she planned to spend the summer working at the Genome Institute, in Singapore. He warned her that prospective students had to speak Mandarin.

 “I’m fluent in Mandarin,” she said.

“I’m thinking, What’s next? She’s already coming into the research group meetings at the end of her freshman year with my Ph.D. students. I find myself listening to her more than to them about the next experiments to be done and the progress that’s been made. I realized she’s different.”

Clearly scientific acumen was exceptional. But what is the role of Mandarin? (This is the second story in the article about how she impressed people with her knowledge of the language.) I am reminded of the famous passage in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value… More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have ”lost”.

Is speaking Mandarin (assuming you’re not yourself Chinese) the intellectual equivalent of having your towel? Is that what he means by “What’s next?” He’s thinking, I’m dean of the engineering school at Stanford, and I don’t speak Mandarin. She’s only 18 and she’s managed to learn to speak fluent Mandarin. She must know all kinds of things that I have no inkling of.

Is that the reason why the chic private schools in the UK all seem to be teaching Mandarin?

Cheating at maths

One thing you get used to as a mathematician: You meet someone in a non-professional context, you tell them what you do (“mathematics” coming after they’ve pushed through vague dodges like “teaching”… “at the university”…), and they look away furtively, as though you’d gratuitously inquired after the origin of their scar or their PTSD, and say something like “I could never do maths”; occasionally a more wistful “I always liked maths at school”. I thought of this when reading this article about a recent Christmas chat by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell:

Corbyn was followed by McDonnell (“he’s about to spend all our money,” said the Labour leader by way of introduction), who thanked the Eastern Daily Press for publishing a letter from a former classmate who revealed that he used to “whisper the maths answers to me to avoid me being caned”. He joked of the Daily Mail headline he expected: “Chancellor cheats at maths again”.

Clearly, he thinks his creative solution to maths anxiety — backed up by the cane — is something that right-thinking people should, if not admire, at least condone, and possibly chuckle at in self-recognition. But as the Labour Party’s aspirant to helm the Treasury, which does presumably require some sort of numeracy, doesn’t he owe the public some sort of explanation of when, if at all, he did actually learn to do sums?

Early greenhouse

I read a novel that I’d known about for a long time, but had never gotten around to: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. I was startled to discover that an essentially background point of the plot of this novel, published in 1971, was the destruction of the Earth’s environment by the greenhouse effect. This has already taken place before the events of the novel, set in the early twenty-first century.

Rain was an old Portland tradition, but the warmth — 70ºF on the second of March — was modern, a result of air pollution. Urban and industrial effluvia had not been controlled soon enough to reverse the cumulative trends already at work in the mid-twentieth century; it would take several centuries for the CO2 to clear out of the air, if it ever did. New York was going to be one of the larger casualties of the Greenhouse Effect, as the polar ice kept melting and the sea kept rising.

This is only incidental to the themes of the novel, which grapples with the structure of reality and the nature of dreams. But it amazed me to see global warming being confidently projected into our future, at a time when — as the climate-change skeptics never tire of pointing out — discussions of climate change tended to refer to the danger of a new Ice Age.

At least, that is my memory. According to the Google Books NGram viewer, though, the “greenhouse effect” was as mentioned in books around 1970 as frequently as it is today; and, oddly, it has declined substantially from a peak three times as high in the early 1990s.Screenshot 2015-12-16 14.22.01

For example, a 1966 book titled Living on Less begins its section on “The Environment” by discussing global warming, and launches right into a description of the greenhouse effect that sounds very similar to what you might read today.

Important punctuation

I had a student recently ask me to send a document that I’d promised a week ago. I sent it immediately, and then she apologised for badgering me about it. I replied

Not at all. My fault.

On reflection, it struck me as a powerful example of the importance of punctuation. It would have been a very different reply had I written

Not at all my fault.

Blurring the lines

Those of us of a statistical turn of mind and inclined toward caution (not the same, even if the categories may be highly correlated) like to compare the lives lost to terror attacks (about which there tends to be unbounded panic, leading to willingness to abandon vast stores of wealth, national pride, and long-cherished principles of justice) and to the sorts of banal lethal events that people don’t get very excited about. For example, there was the study showing that additional automobile travel due to fear of airplane hijacking in the few months following the 9/11 attacks killed more people — through the ordinary difference in automobile and airplane fatality rates — than were killed in the planes on 9/11 (and over time may have killed 2300 people, almost as many as the entire death toll of the attacks).

An obvious point of comparison is between the Paris terror attacks and the remarkably similar style of mass shootings that have become such a regular affair in the US. (More than one a day in 2015!) The latter evokes reactions ranging from a shrug to a right-to-bear-arms rally. The former have American conservatives — who not too long ago would eat nothing but freedom fries — expressing their fraternité with the noble liberty-loving French people, and the need to exclude refugees from ISIS from the US because you can never be too careful. The connection was best expressed by Texas congressman Tony Dale, with an “A” rating from the NRA, who argued that Syrian refugees need to be kept out of Texas because once legally admitted they would be entitled to Texas drivers licenses, and with those they could freely purchase firearms: (more…)

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